An old friend of mine, getting ready to leave a public office he had held for 14 years, explained why: Friends come, friends go. Enemies accumulate. I probably have enemies I am unaware of, but I was more struck by the friends come, friends go part. I don’t have any close friends from high school with whom I have stayed in touch , but two college friends maintain regular contact. My late husband and I were together for 56 years, from first date until death did us part. His sister is still a dear friend. I moved to Clemson 54 years ago, and my first friend is still my good friend. One of my very closest friends has been part of my life for 43 years.
Yes, friends go. Some die, or move away, and we lose touch. When marriages end through death or divorce, some married friends become less available, and we loners are more inclined seek the company of others who also live alone. That’s part of life. What I have never adapted well to are the friendships that spring up, are fairly intense, and then fade away.
Many years ago, there was a woman in my circle (neighbor, children the same age) whom I’ll call Penny. She had a new best friend every six months. I had my turn as her best friend. Penny was funny and outgoing and involved in lots of things, so she could always find a new best friend. She finally found the right best friend and stuck with her for several years until the friend moved away. Penny was what one might call a friend consumer, looking on a friend as an experience to enjoy, get tired of and replace. Kind of like a car, or a piece of furniture, or a restaurant. I found it baffling. For me, finding a friend with whom to share conversation, experiences, joys, sorrows, hopes and fears takes time and effort, so I want it to last.
One of my dearest friends died four years ago, but she taught me a great deal about friendship during the 18 years that we knew each other. I learned to regard a deep friendship as a covenant, a mutual understanding of what we ask and expect from each other and what we give in return. That shared understanding of friendship is critical to acknowledging that someone has become a part of my inner circle.
Lasting and deep friendships—and I count four of those in my present inmost circle, another less intense group of seven or eight friends in the next circle—involve effort by both partners. When a friend is suffering illness or grief or stress, we need to be there for her, counting on her to do the same for us. We need to laugh together, cry together, and vent without being judged or criticized when we are hurt or angry or frustrated. When there is conflict, and at some point there usually is, friends need to find ways to address it and move beyond it. Sometimes it’s a cooling off period, although in a truly covenantal relationship, there is a need to eventually talk about what happened. My life only has emotional space for a few of those intense friendships at a time.
Some of us prefer to settle for less intimacy and honesty and feel safer in a more superficial and expendable relationship. Perhaps that’s what worked for Penny. There’s also a comfortable middle ground, in which friendships, like many marriages, settle into a pattern of familiarity that doesn’t require a lot of interaction. I have several friends with whom I had been very close in the past because of regular interaction at church or work that I now see once a month for lunch, and I still enjoy their company, but it’s a different kind of friendship. The initial intensity has faded but there is still pleasure in each other’s company, affirming shared memories and often shared values. But even if we drift apart, usually these are people we still count as friends. It is harder when a person whom you once regarded as part of your inner circle decide to defect to a more remote location without explanation, as happens from time to time. But that, too, is part of the dynamic of friendship.
In Eastern Europe, the First of March was International Friendship Day. They pin red and white ribbons, buttons, stickers, or yarn figures on their friends, advertising to the world how many friends they have. I still have a yarn boy and girl from a visit to Bulgaria. But quality, depth, and intensity are at least as important as quantity of people you count as friends. So a bit late for the occasion of International Friendship Day, and being observant of our current national health policy of social distancing, spend time with a friend today (just don’t hug!). It will make your day, and the other person’s day too.